Monday, December 04, 2006

A Window Into Picture Books

It's a glorious experience with books. You snuggle close to a small child (maybe even your own child or a grandchild) who is dressed for bed.  This child has selected a book from their bedroom and now you get to read aloud the story. Do you change your voice for the different characters or read it in a monotone? I hope you change your voice because it’s fun to differentiate the characters as you read aloud the story.

Yet as you read something inside bothers you.  Maybe it's the storyline or how the characters treat each other. Or maybe a sentence isn't written like you would have done it.  Then you think, I could do better than this. I should be writing children's books. Then the next time at your computer you actually write a children’s book. You even pour the energy into learning the children's marketplace and learning about how children's books are constructed. There are some terrific tools available to you in this area. For over two years, I taught at the Institute of Children’s Literature, which is the nation's oldest home correspondence course for children’s writers.

One of the teaching goals in the first lesson was for the student to understand the necessity to learn the craft of writing. As an instructor, I read hundreds of horrible first stories and had the opportunity to gently guide the student toward improvement. The ICL course is excellent and highly recommended if you want to get into this area of writing. Many professional writers got their start in the writing world through taking the Institute correspondence course.

It's admittedly a challenge to find a publisher if you've written a children's book. Why? Because the publisher devotes a large percentage of their financial investment in producing a children’s book into the artwork and design--as well as the words from the writer. Printing in full-color is a requirement for the majority of these books and it's expensive. Publishers move with caution on these projects because of this large financial investment. The book has to sell into the marketplace to recover that initial investment and earn additional funds. I know it's a simple concept but many writers forget this fact as they submit their manuscripts.

GoodnightmoonboardFor a window into some of the children's picture books published last year, take a look at this fascinating article in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert called "Goodnight Mush." The title is a play of the title, Goodnight Moon, the best-selling picture book from Margaret Wise Brown. Look at this insight about this classic from Kobert's well-written article, “The mother of all bedtime stories, "Goodnight Moon," by Margaret Wise Brown, will turn sixty next year, but the official anniversary edition is already out (HarperTrophy; $6.99). To return to it after reading six or seven dozen of the latest picture books is a bit of a shock. As you might expect, "Goodnight Moon" is more restrained, more exacting, and more lyrical than anything written for children today. In its own quiet way, it is also more brutal. At the time that it appeared, Brown was thirty-seven and a well-established children's writer; among her many acclaimed picture books were "The Runaway Bunny" and "Little Fur Family." Still, she didn't quite fit, or want to fit, the role of beloved children's author; her real ambition was to write for grownups. Brown never married--her affairs were conducted with members of both sexes--and had no children. When she wasn't making up tales about soft little bunnies, she liked to watch them get ripped to pieces; a fan of running to hounds, Brown was a charter member of an exclusive Long Island hunting club known as the Buckram Beagles. (Asked about this apparent conflict in an interview with Life, Brown replied, "Well, I don't especially like children, either. At least not as a group. I won't let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.") Reportedly, Brown wrote "Goodnight Moon" in a single morning. The struggle between parent and child that is the explicit subject of so many bedtime stories is, in "Goodnight Moon," only implicit. Indeed, there's no parent on the scene. The story begins with the little rabbit, drawn with wonderful flatness by Clement Hurd, already in bed. It is seven o'clock. A few pages later, according to the blue clock on the mantelpiece and the yellow clock on the bed table, it is seven-twenty. Then it is seven-thirty, then seven-forty. When the "good-nighting" begins, it is not clear who is doing the speaking. The moon is rising, yet the light grows dimmer. The clocks tick on--seven-fifty, eight o'clock.”

Before you fire off your next children’s book submission, pour a bit of additional energy into your pitch letter.  To find a home for any type of submission will be a matter of getting it to the right person at the right time at the right place. It requires more than persistence. Combine your persistence with excellent storytelling.

3 Comment:

At 7:30 PM, Blogger Bayman4000 Left a note...

Good stuff. Thanks for the insights. I attended a writers' conference where you were among the speakers and was informed by another speaker that the childrens book market is moribund at the moment. Do you see that changing anytime soon? What publishers are actually buying manuscripts for secular markets?

At 9:34 PM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


Many of the children's books are being produced through packagers. Search the word in the blog search engine and you can learn more. Yes, there are many publishers still buying in the secular market. Like the Christian market, the submissions have to be excellent--and to the right place at the right time. I hope that helps,


At 9:33 AM, Blogger Unknown Left a note...

That's shocking about Margaret Wise Brown! I taught preschool and kindergarten for nearly 20 years and have three children. I loved her books, and the children did too! I think it must be a fluke (although I did read something about Gary Paulson also not really liking people.) I always encourage children writers that I meet to try out their books on real live children. I think you need to understand children to be successful. I've read plenty of children's books where it was obvious the author didn't understand children.

At http://favoritepastimes.blogspot.com I have been blogging this week about authors of classic children's books, not picture but YA. Laura Ingalls Wilder certainly did understand children as did William H. Armstrong, the author of Sounder.


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